Screenshot of the game "Flight Control" shows an illustration of an airport with four runways near water. Six airplanes in different colors fly around the airport, are coming in for landing, or are on the runway about to take off. Text in top right corner says "High score: 00047"
“Flight Control” is an Apple game where you manage planes taxiing, landing, and taking off at an airport.

Recently in one of my productive distraction moments, I came across a tweet thread from Dr. Hannah Snyder (@Hannah_R_Snyder) that spurred reflection for me in my teaching, and has led to this discussion in this platform more broadly. Two articles were shared related to deadlines and procrastination—an article by Akira Miyake and Michael Kane (2022) and this Inside Higher Ed piece by Susan D’Agostino that interviews Dr. Snyder. Both pieces highlight that some of the pedagogical shifts made during the “pivots of the pandemic” may be hurting the students we were trying to help. These shifts include such things as flexible deadlines, autonomy in assignment choice, ability to work at their own pace, contract grading, ungrading, etc.

This discussion hit me right in the head, heart, and gut together. Wait—what??!! Put me in that camp. I want my students to succeed, I set up my classrooms to have flexibility and choice and autonomy, I absolutely prioritize learning over assignments being submitted on time. I have sat with students and helped them manage assignment deadlines, prioritize classes, figure out what assignments we can add an extension to; I have adjusted assignments so they were still relevant to what was not happening in class. As I engage in conversations with students, I have often said, “I worry that my flexibility could be making the problem worse for you.” This Twitter thread and these articles highlight some important points about the solutions we have chosen to address concerns we are observing. While there is good evidence to support these practices, a conversation about unintentional harms is worth having.

Let’s touch on the distraction and procrastination that many of us find rampant in our students, and if we are honest, likely ourselves. But before we get there, we need to prime this conversation with a discussion of executive function. What is it, who typically struggles with it, and when do we see challenges in executive function impact our students? Executive functioning is defined as a set of higher-level cognitive skills that help us manage, organize, and execute many day-to-day functions. I particularly like this analogy: it is essentially our air traffic control system, helping our brain plan runways, prioritize planes, filter distractions, and control impulses ( Many children begin development of it by age of 3, and people with disabilities including Autism and ADHD often find executive functioning an ongoing challenge (Karalunas et al. 2018). Given this air traffic control analogy, I wholeheartedly empathize as my air traffic control system has been especially wonky these last couple years likely due to many factors, but the pivots of the pandemic stand front and center. When I discuss struggles with students and describe executive functioning, they often nod in agreement that yes, they identify with these challenges.

COVID-19 and all the uncertainty that it brought to our classrooms and learning spaces impacted executive functioning for students at all levels. Additionally, we also have the constant pulls of technology distractions, news distractions, and life distractions. Many students likely lack practice at managing these distractions in learning and working spaces. The transition to everything now being digital on our computers, phones, and tablets makes things feel flat—there isn’t a stack of papers to read through or folders of homework. These physical organization, planning, and reminder tools and markers are missing.

Miyake and Kane (2022) suggest two drivers of procrastination: negative moods and goal-management failures. For students that are in a holding pattern of stress and uncertainty, academic procrastination becomes the choice. For other students it is the time/goal-management piece that is failing them. Faculty will anecdotally say they cut content, cut assignments, cut activities, and yet our students still report they are overwhelmed. Many faculty are attributing procrastination to being “paralyzed by perfection” where students choose to not turn it in for fear of being graded or judged poorly (Smith et al. 2017). Maybe we need to consider that it isn’t the amount of work that is necessarily the problem, but rather the planning, managing, organizing, and prioritizing all the things while dodging distractions. Any load is overwhelming if you don’t have the skills or tools to address them. Perfectionism and fear of failure can become a rational excuse when you don’t trust that you understand the goals, purpose, and expectations of an assignment.

If you are on a similar thought process as me, this might be good news—I can scaffold, structure, and frame assignments to help students organize, prioritize, and understand goals. I want to pause here to amplify caution as we wade into this moment of “ah ha . . . problem identified . . . solution planning activate!”.

While many of us (finger pointing at me here) can flippantly say, yep that [executive functioning] is a problem for me too, I see it in all my students—that response and perception can minimize the impact it has on neurodiverse students who had these challenges before the world turned upside down with COVID-19 and societal upheavals. We need to acknowledge that these challenges are different for different identities and the solution is not an abrupt turn to adding hard deadlines, removing flexibility, and reversing to increased “rigor” (see my blog post on rigor and ableism for a discussion on this).

The events surrounding COVID-19 acutely changed our lives and classrooms, often blending and layering our home activities with learning spaces. Many of our educational “pivots” prioritized flexibility, autonomy, and fluidity, and they lessened the structures and routines that simplify executive function load. I think we need to pause here as an industry and check our ableism. We need to build classroom structures and learning practices that support and foster our students’ executive functioning skills while also considering practices that promote critical thinking, real-world application, and problem solving. As we work to rebalance and reimagine our learning practices, I would also implore us to look to the students who likely have built or tried many strategies to support executive functioning skills that we could borrow and implement in our courses to support all students. Our neurodiverse students may have devised strategies that help them manage and find survival or success in these continual educational pivots. Here, for example, is an article by Kaylene George, an autistic adult, laying out three actually doable executive functioning tips: reevaluate expectations, focus on habits not routines, and use timers.

So what are our next steps? What are you trying in your learning spaces to support students? Are there practices you have tried that you are stepping back from because it didn’t work the way you hoped? I would be interested in chatting more!

Sidebar Example

I have been exploring these topics of executive function, distraction, and procrastination. Knowing things are not getting better with my adjustments, it is time to reflect on what I am putting into place. I thought I would pull you in for some of my journey.

Flexible deadlines:I have assignments with multiple submissions (e.g., 5 cultural events). I do have a hard deadline of 2 before a mid-semester break. I do this so people can do them and turn them in when their workload for other classes is lower. But most if not all students turn 2 in right at the mid-semester deadline and 3 in at the end-of-the-semester deadline. I also at those points get requests for extensions. So clearly they see 2 deadlines and multiple pieces at each—overwhelmed! Who am I helping with this deadline format? How can I adjust it to meet my goals and support students?

Adjustment idea: Keep this same format, 2 before mid-semester break and 3 after, but add that no two events can be submitted in the same week? Is that more confusing? Put in 5 hard deadlines with a 10-day flex period around that due date? Does that set up a managing nightmare for both me and students?

I am learning as I play with these processes that repetitive framing of assignment goals, expectations, and process is the most important. Reminding students that these assignments are in place for their learning and application to building habits of curiosity, autonomy, and self-trust. The transition to owning their learning vs. producing products for me is a very hard mindset shift and one that takes practice, patience, and persistence. But over time many students will take ownership and pride in the habits they build and their personal growth through the process, and those process outcomes ultimately support their well-being.


D‘Agostino, Susan. 2023. “‘Procrastination-Friendly’ Academe Needs More Deadlines.” Inside Higher Ed, February 10, 2023.

Karalunas, Sarah L., Elizabeth Hawkey, Hanna Gustafsson, Meghan Miller, Marybeth Langhorst, Michaela Cordova, Damien Fair, and Joel T. Nigg. 2018. “Overlapping and Distinct Cognitive Impairments in Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity and Autism Spectrum Disorder without Intellectual Disability.” Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology 46, 1705–1716.

Miyake, Akari, and Michael J. Kane. 2022. “Toward a Holistic Approach to Reducing Academic Procrastination with Classroom Interventions.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 31 (4): 291–304.

Smith, Martin M., Simon B. Sherry, Donald H. Saklofske, Aislin R. Mushqaush. 2017. “Clarifying the Perfectionism-Procrastination Relationship Using a 7-Day, 14-Occasion Daily Diary Study.” Personality and Individual Differences 112: 117-123.

Caroline J. Ketcham is a professor of exercise science at Elon University, and she is the 2021-2023 Center for Engaged Learning Scholar. Dr. Ketcham’s CEL scholar project focuses on equity in high-impact practices (HIPs) for neurodiverse and physically disabled student populations.

How to Cite This Post

Ketcham, Caroline J. 2023. “Ableism in Academia: The Uneven Impacts of Distraction and Procrastination.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. March 14, 2023.